HONG KONG — China took a combative stance on Wednesday, accusing the United States of starting a diplomatic war that led it to expel almost all American journalists from three newspapers.
In articles and commentaries from China’s propaganda organs as well as remarks by a top spokeswoman, Beijing indicated it would not back down, accusing the United States of starting the dispute. The state media commentary also focused sharply on reporting by the three outlets, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, which the government has often accused of being unfair.
“We reject ideological bias against China, reject fake news made in the name of press freedom, reject breaches of ethics in journalism,” tweeted Hua Chunying, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman.
An article from The Global Times, a stridently nationalistic tabloid controlled by the Chinese Communist Party, criticized the The New York Times’s coverage of the coronavirus outbreak, the monthslong antigovernment protests in Hong Kong, and the Chinese authorities’ internment of ethnic minority Muslims in far western Xinjiang. The paper’s coverage of the epidemic, the article said, was “aiming to attack China’s political system and smear China’s efforts” to contain the virus.
It said reports by the Times and other outlets about the government’s policies in the Xinjiang region had “smeared and attacked China without basis.”
Under China’s leader, Xi Jinping, the news media has come under an increasingly tighter grip and foreign reporters have been punished with visa denials. In recent weeks as the coronavirus spread through China, the government cracked down on domestic and foreign reporting, muzzling medical professionals and censoring and removing reports and commentary online that has challenged the official narrative.
China said Tuesday that it would require all American journalists for the three newspapers whose credentials expire by the end of the year to turn in their press cards within 10 days. It said they would not be allowed to continue working as journalists in China.
In an unusual move, its announcement said the Americans were also forbidden from working as journalists in Macau or Hong Kong, two semiautonomous Chinese territories that have traditionally had greater protections for press freedom than the mainland. It was not immediately clear how Beijing would enforce this.
China also said it was requiring the three outlets as well as Time magazine and Voice of America to disclose details of their staff, assets and operations in China.
The move would affect at least 13 American journalists but the number could be higher, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said in a statement on Wednesday.
The organization said the expulsion “diminishes us in number and in spirit, though not in our commitment to vigorously cover China. There are no winners in the use of journalists as diplomatic pawns by the world’s two pre-eminent economic powers.”
The news outlets condemned the Chinese government’s decision. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the expulsions “unfortunate” and said he hoped China would reconsider.
Beijing has said that the move was in retaliation for the Trump administration’s decision to limit the number of Chinese citizens from five state-controlled Chinese media outlets who can work in the United States to 100, which forced the expulsion of about 60.
The Global Times echoed this in an editorial on Wednesday that accused Washington of starting the tit-for-tat. “As a Chinese media, we regret that the conflict between China and the United States has escalated due to political differences,” adding that both Chinese and American journalists were “implicated by political frictions between China and the United States.”
The moves against the American outlets follow the expulsion of three Journal reporters over the headline last month, “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” on an op-ed column about the country’s coronavirus response efforts.
In recent days, the People’s Daily, a Communist Party mouthpiece, and China Daily, a state-run newspaper, posted messages that circulated widely on China’s Twitter-like forum Weibo targeting the Times for what they called “double standards” in its tweets about the lockdown imposed in China and in Italy to curb the spread of the virus.
The foreign ministry left several questions unanswered in its statement on Tuesday, including how and whether the Hong Kong government would take further steps to enforce Beijing’s expulsion. Hong Kong operates under a political formula known as “one country, two systems,” that promises the Chinese territory a high degree of autonomy, including independent courts, a free news media and extensive protections of civil liberties.
Many global news organizations use Hong Kong as headquarters for the Asia region. Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the region has jurisdiction over immigration matters. If Hong Kong refused to allow the journalists to work in the city, it would be seen by some critics as the latest sign of eroding freedoms in the territory.
“Whichever way Beijing decides to proceed, it will be a blow to the ‘one country, two systems’ formula,” said Jason Y. Ng, a prominent writer and lawyer in Hong Kong. “So let’s hope that this hastily put together statement is more political posturing than genuine policy and that the Foreign Ministry has no intention to actually implement it in Hong Kong.”